samedi, novembre 27, 2004

The Delays

Small-town romantics

The Delays' singer, Greg Gilbert, tells Steve Jelbert why he and his brother want to be the Benny and Bjorn of British rock

26 November 2004

The right sorts can find their souls stirred by any surroundings, so perhaps it's no surprise that the Delays, quite probably the only band in musical history to have received comparisons to both The Hollies and the Cocteau Twins, should have emerged from the unexceptional climes of Southampton.

"I got into trouble with friends for saying it was the most average place in the world," explains the band's 23-year-old singer and main songwriter, Greg Gilbert. "But I meant it was the most normal place. I judge everywhere by Southampton. It's the sort of place where you have to create your own drama, a blank canvas."

Craig David apart, the city has hardly produced a pop contender. Instead a search for reflected local glamour led the band to festoon the cover of their 2003 debut album Faded Seaside Glamour with images of the ocean liners that crowded the docks during the golden age of sea travel. The quartet are certainly unabashed romantics. "We had a long chat about what we're into, and I think we're a brave band, I really do. We're the complete antithesis of an angular garage rock band. There's a real romanticism to what we do," says Gilbert. "The sound is something we want people to get totally lost in. It would be easier to strip it down, but we want to inject colour."

Signed by Rough Trade after previous sporadic dabblings with the capital's music business had proved fruitless, a determination to work from their home town proved the right choice. "We made a decision not to play London any more on the off chance an A&R man would be in the venue that night. Having to keep picking yourself up afterwards was heartbreaking. We thought if anyone's interested they'll come down to us, and they did. We had to play a private gig for them though. That was nearly as scary as playing at my mate's wedding with an acoustic guitar," he says.

Though he suspects that his record company thought they were signing an act akin to the minimal guitar-pop style of The La's, the Delays turned out to be something much lusher and less focused, partly due to their own inexperience.

"The first album was fundamentally a bedsit record - adolescent, written on the dole and fantasising about not being a local band any more. Any dynamics from playing live didn't exist - our rehearsal space was so tiny - so we went into the studio without a live sound," he explains, "The Strokes and Libertines [both label-mates] have this fantastic live thing so they just try to capture it. But we didn't know what we were."

After three months holed up in rural Wales they came up with a "dense headphone record", including three outstanding singles in "Long Time Coming", the ever-so-Sixties "Hey Girl" and the distinctly feminine sounding "Nearer Than Heaven". (Gilbert might sound like Elizabeth Fraser at times, but he also nominates groaning former gas fitter Joe Cocker as an unlikely, but equally audible influence). The arduous experience taught them a straightforward lesson.

"Now we don't want to record anything until we've played it to death," says Gilbert, ruefully.

The sound of the ever benign Teenage Fanclub recording next door proved annoying, while Greg's younger brother, keyboardist Aaron, even started to experience auditory hallucinations of his own electronic sequences. Ironically their shared tune "Wanderlust" was penned after he forced his older sibling to join in, involuntarily. "He had his loops up so loud that I really had no choice but to play along with it through the wall," laughs Greg, who had been working at his own pace in an adjacent room.

Their fraternal relationship is inescapable and inevitable. "We do get at each other, but in a covert way, where you say the word which you know will get a reaction," admits Greg. "It's interesting to write with someone who knows you so well and can embarrass you at the drop of a hat. I don't know of many brothers who write together." He pauses. "I don't know if it's that healthy..."

Their personalities are certainly very different. Art-school dropout Greg still suffers a regular vision of "walking out onstage to find that only my family are there". He describes his apparently hyperactive brother as "completely the opposite of me. He likes to be the centre of everything while I prefer to recede into the background. It's handy, though. If I'm feeling insecure, I push Aaron up front."

There must be something in the genes. Their father worked for years as a guitarist. "My earliest memories are my dad going off and playing gigs in a function band when I was a kid. He's a great guitarist but it never occurred to him to write. But I only play to write," says the chip off the old block, proud of a circuitous connection with the late, great Curtis Mayfield after his dad backed a line-up of The Impressions on a European tour.

Their new single "Lost in a Melody" is a clear step forward from their debut, although no less catchy. Somehow managing to evoke the swing of Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug" and Max Romeo's reggae classic "War Ina Babylon" ("I can hear that," says Greg, although it seems to have never occurred to him before), this very English piece of art-pop, in the vein of New Order or Pulp, bodes well for their next album.

"We want to avoid the cliché of becoming 'darker'. 'Darker' means 'not as tuneful' and we don't want to fall into that at all. It's not a different band. Aaron and I just want to be the Benny and Bjorn of British guitar rock," he jokes, although they'd seriously love to work with Abba's masterminds. They're unusually well versed in music history. Drummer Rowly (just Rowly) is the son of folk-loving parents who actually saw Nick Drake at one of his 20 or so live performances. (Apparently he hid his face, but was notably dextrous on his instrument). Greg drops unexpected names into conversation, not only referring, rather wonderfully, to Big Star as "the Velvet Underground of jangle" (presumably referring to the truism that though few bought their records, every one of them formed their own band) but even obscure names such as The Posies and the dBs, men now reduced to working for REM.

Being brought up in a town with no particular scene seems to have left him more determined to make a mark than contemporaries from places with a stronger musical heritage. Yet he appears unsure how to react to acceptance. "We're trying to find something that's absolutely ours. It's almost the opposite of wanting to embrace something. We're so far removed from what's going on that it's like a secret community. But it's growing," he smiles. "We have removed ourselves from outside influences. We haven't even moved to London."

A long American tour with Franz Ferdinand and The Futureheads made them aware that they're not alone. "I don't think Franz are overtly British, though. I wish there was a better way of putting it than 'go out and dance' music, but that's why it goes down so well there. I've got a bit of an outsider complex as it is, and I was worried about people disapproving, but there's none of that across the water.

"I still can't get over the novelty of going to another country where the people down the front know the words to your songs," he ponders, "I hope I never get used to it." It's his nearest and dearest who have proved most critical. "Adequate - that's the kind of compliment you get from friends. They never say 'you're good', they always say 'you've worked hard for it'. It's a barrier they can't get over."

It's hard not to warm to Gilbert. Few young rock performers think so deeply about their role, something which might even hinder his progress. His reasoning is undeniably acute though.

"The most valuable thing any artist has is their personality, not their clothes or posture. Even attitude is borne out of the current climate half the time. You need to put that in your music. We all write, because if you get more personalities involved then it will go somewhere you never expected. At the end of the day all that matters is the music." He stops himself. "Oh, I hate hearing those words coming out my mouth. They're so meat and veg."

He needn't worry. His culinary ambitions are grander than that.

'Lost in a Melody' is out now on Rough Trade

© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd